Muscle “tightness” is a vague, non-medical term for something that everyone has felt and no one enjoys. We practice techniques—stretch, foam roll, massage, etc.—with great fervor, trying to eliminate muscle tightness as if it’s the Devil’s own work.
Is it possible muscle tightness serves an important purpose? Yep. It’s called reciprocal inhibition—a very important self-protective mechanism deployed by the nervous system when communication between the brain and any part of a muscle is lost.
Consider this scenario. In the bright afternoon sun, you stride confidently through your home without much thought. Since you can clearly see every obstacle, negotiating an injury free path from room to room is easy. Now suppose there is a power outage on a cloudy night and everything goes black—no street lights shining through the windows, no night lights, no glow from the digital clock on the cable box—utter darkness. Do you now stride confidently from room to room or do you take baby steps with your hands out in front of you trying to sense your position in the house? (Hopefully, before you kick something with your toe or fall down the stairs!)
Similarly, when muscle spindles (the sensory tissue embedded in muscle tissue that communicates with the nervous system) work efficiently to provide the nervous system with the equivalent of bright afternoon sunlight everything is great. Given the neurological equivalent of a dark house, however, the brain will not allow a muscle to stride confidently when baby steps are called for. If unable to “see” the muscle’s position, the brain assumes danger and initiates protection protocols by limiting range of motion.
Reciprocal inhibition works something like this: You incur some type of trauma to your biceps. Let’s say simple overuse that you barely notice. Just a twinge or two above the elbow, but enough to limit information coming from that area to the brain. If the brain can’t “see” the entire biceps, it doesn’t know if the muscle is slightly traumatized from too much gardening or if the biceps tendon is about to tear away from its attachment to the bone. To protect the biceps from a worst case scenario, the brain orders the triceps to tighten thus reducing the range of motion of the biceps. Protection initiated. Activities normally handled by the biceps are assigned to other muscles. Hopefully, this gives the biceps time to heal and reestablish communication.
The sensation of tightness we feel in our body is a signal that all is not right. It might be a little thing. It might be a big thing. The brain needs more information to assess the situation. It’s highly likely communication will be restored and the tightness will resolve on its own without any mashing or stretching on our part.
Of course, the problem comes when communication is not restored and the tightness lingers for months, even years. We become locked into patterns of limited or painful movement treating tightness as the enemy.
In MAT, we see muscle tightness as a useful tool. The tightness and subsequent limited ranges of motion are like blinking arrows pointing toward areas of poor communication which, if followed, can lead to the root cause of pain and if treated, to elimination of pain.
-Yvonne Becker, for True Motion Fitness